Bonhoeffer’s Criticism of Barth


This passage always struck me in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Does anyone know if/where Barth ever addressed this specific criticism? For the record, I haven’t read much Barth outside of Church Dogmatics so it might addressed in some of his other shorter works

“Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, ‘Like it or lump it’: virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary parts of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn’t biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation. The positivism of revelation makes it too easy for itself, by setting up, as it does in the last analysis, a law of faith, and so mutilates what is – by Christ’s incarnation! – a gift for us. In the place of religion there now stands the church – that is in itself biblical – but the world is in some degree on itself and left to its own devices, and that’s the mistake” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 286).


3 Responses to “Bonhoeffer’s Criticism of Barth”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    I’m starting to sympathize more with Bonhoeffer’s criticism after reading this statement by Barth:

    “Where God is, there the angels of God are. Where there are no angels, there is no God” (CD, III/3, 238).

    Give me a break!

  2. philq Says:

    His criticism of ‘religion’ is in his commentary on Romans (and maybe other books but I only know of this one.) He takes Paul to use ‘law’ to mean ‘religion’ in the sense of a human striving towards God, and then contrasts that with God’s bursting in to meet us (as a bomb exploding in the middle of the world, as a line tangent to a circle, &c &c.)

    Anyway, you know I’m no Barth scholar so there’s probably alot more to it than this. But Bonhoeffer’s criticism sounds interesting. Isn’t it similiar to what Nate Kerr develops in his book about Barth leaning too much on the Word of God at the expense of the actual historicity of Christ?

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I haven’t read the commentary on Romans yet. He also stakes out his criticism of religion in CD I/2. I think however the criticism of religion is different than Bonhoeffer’s. Barth uses the Word of God as a criticism of all religions (including Christianity) whereas Bonhoeffer wants to be able to explain Christianity in a non-religious way to those outside the church.

    There was a really good discussion over at AUFS about Barth’s criticism of religion and its relationship to the propositions by Kerr, Halden, and Ry. Here’s the link:

    I might need to go back to Kerr’s book. I agree with the criticism and think Barth should’ve taken Bultmann a little more seriously when it comes to reconciling historical criticism with theology. I do think that Barth et al. were somewhat suspicious of historical critical research to reconstrut Jesus’ life, which was demolished by Schweitzer’s criticism of the historical Jesus research of the 19th century.

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